Fasting, Prayer, and Almsgiving: the Three Great Practices of Lent
“… For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” Luke 9:23-25
This is the purpose of Lent: To lose our life for Christ’s sake, so that we might save it eternally. It is the ego, that self-absorbed and little, constrictive self, that has the grandiosity to think that it is the source of all knowledge and wisdom, that must die, daily. Luke is the only one of the Synoptic Gospel writers who uses that word, ʺdailyʺ in this passage. We all know the impetuousness of the ego within ourselves. It sees everything in reference to itself. Its desires are oriented only to the self. It demands that everything appeal to its particular view of reality. It is that part of us that can be driven by the seven deadly sins of Pride, Greed, Anger, Jealousy, Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth. The ego is that part of us that desires the profit of ʺthe whole world,ʺ that endangers us of ʺforfeitingʺ our eternal souls. Lent is a time to work on letting go of this ego. How can we do that? Are there specific things that we can do? The answer to these questions is in the three great practices of Lent: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.
Prayer is the practice that opens us up to a personal relationship with God. It is the practice of conversation with God. It has many forms, of course, and all of those forms can be useful in the effort to deepen our relationship with God. It is up to each of us to find that unique form that works best for us. But let me offer one thought here. ʺWhen you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And you Father who sees in secret will repay you. Do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.ʺ (Matthew 5:3-8) Jesus is recommending silence and solitude as the best means to effective prayer here. This is something we all can do, of course. It is the most important habit we can develop to deepen our relationship with God.
Meister Eckhart says, ʺSilence is the sister of the divine.ʺ There is nothing in the world that resembles God so much as silence. Silence is the great friend of the soul; it unveils the riches of solitude. Lent is a time to practice the art of taking ourselves out of the world briefly each day, in order to focus our minds, for a time, on the One who creates the world and breathes into it at all times. It is the practice of giving ourselves the space and silence that we need to get beneath the worldly things and temptations that crowd our minds and our daily lives. This is not easy. That’s why we need to practice it on a daily basis. It is in the silence of our hearts that God enters into conversation with us. It is in the silence of our ʺlisteningʺ that we can hear God’s voice. Silence requires solitude, that is why Jesus counsels us to go into our ʺinner rooms, close the door, and pray to the Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.ʺ (Mt. 6:
Fasting. What is it? Is it just related to food, or does it have larger meaning too? Fasting is the attitude of sacrificing a good thing, or a particular form of pleasure, for a greater good. Fasting is not the end that is desired here. It is merely a means to a higher end. The end of fasting is to prayerfully learn the practice of ʺlosingʺ the self, for a greater good, for the sake of Jesus. The greater good here is not the development of some kind of stoic heroism, but rather, to develop the willing, selfless attitude of letting go of worldly desires, for a period of time, for a greater good. Whether that fasting be of food, drink, or some habit that is more selfish than other-oriented, is not as important as the prayerful attitude behind it. By practicing this kind of fasting, by willingly choosing to do this, we may briefly join our suffering with the sufferings of Jesus, for his purposes, rather than ours. Again, this is to be done in secret. ʺDo not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to other to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.ʺ (Mt. 6:16-18) In this manner, we are practicing the virtue of forgetting our selves, and we are putting our egos in their proper place again. In a spiritual way, we are ʺlosing our life for [Christ’s] sakeʺ and he will repay us with grace in the present and eternal life in the future.
Almsgiving is the third great practice of Lent. Again, it is important to get this right in our minds. Almsgiving is not the end that is desired here, it is only a means through which we can learn to let go of our ʺlifeʺ for the greater good. Sometimes this practice is more difficult than the others. It is money that opens the doors to instant gratifications for us. It is a means to power as well as pleasure. It is a very seductive thing to us. But if acquiring more and more of it causes others to suffer, it is a danger to our eternal souls. If it blinds us to the suffering of others, if it separates us so far from their suffering that we no longer have to see it, we may, again, be endangering our eternal souls. The Lenten practice of almsgiving helps us to see that money, in the economics of the Gospel, is best used as a means through which justice may be done. In giving alms Jesus tells us, ʺDo not blow your trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be a secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.ʺ (Mt. 6:1-4)
These, then, are the three great practices of Lent through which we prepare ourselves to enter into the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus at Easter. If we practice them well enough, they could become the true and healthy habits of our daily lives the rest of the year as well. In these habits we would be able to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus every day of our lives. Let the people cry out, Amen!